The pollsters were right to be cautious. The US midterm elections produced a more mixed picture than either party might have hoped – or feared.
There was a bigger than expected majority for the Democrats in the House of Representatives; unexpected gains for the Republicans in the Senate; and better results for the Republicans in states where President Donald Trump stumped than where he did not.
The new House is now more diverse – more representative of the United States as it is today – and the first openly gay state governor was elected, in generally progressive Colorado. What is more, there was the highest turnout at midterm elections for decades – so a victory for democratic engagement, too.
The early consensus is that the advantage now lies with the Democrats. With control of the House, they also control all-important committees. They have some of the means to advance their agenda: on voting rights, healthcare, and domestic issues they campaigned on. Even if they cannot actually force legislation on to the books, they can at least put it on the political map before the next congressional and presidential elections in two years’ time, and they can check, or block, measures the president and the Republicans put forward.
Crucially, their House majority also gives them the power of subpoena, meaning that they could force Trump to supply his tax records and other potentially embarrassing or incriminating documents. They could also, if they chose – and Robert Mueller’s investigation gave them the grounds to do so – initiate impeachment proceedings against the president.
But the Republicans’ more secure hold on the Senate complicates this picture quite considerably. The President retains – has indeed strengthened – his power to make judicial, and some other key administration, appointments. While the House can block Republicans’ legislative plans, the Senate can block Democrats’ plans in return, so political gridlock could be at hand. And without a Senate majority, any ambitions the Democrats might harbour for impeachment will go nowhere.
My own view is that Donald Trump is actually in a stronger position – and the Democrats in a weaker position – than either side looks. First, Trump: these elections were seen, as first-term midterms commonly are, as a referendum on the president, and in the recent past – with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – they have been a disaster for the occupant of the White House. With the Senate and some state governor results, plus his own, very personal role in the campaign, this was well short of a disaster for the president.
Second, the majority for the Democrats in the lower chamber is being presented as a new and welcome assertion of the checks and balances enshrined in the US constitution. To an extent that is true. But this downplays what seems to me to have been the quite successful operation of constitution over the past two years when confronted by a maverick and strong-willed president.
Legislation to roll back Obama’s healthcare reforms, for instance, was diluted during its passage through congress. Leading Republicans forced Trump to rein in his desire to improve relations with Russia, while the new controls he demanded on migration were contested and then watered down considerably by the judiciary and popular lobbying.
What in many other countries would be called “civil society” also came into its own – remember the crowds turning up at airports to protest against the exclusion of mainly Muslim migrants and even green-card holders – something that may also help to account for the more diverse composition of the new congress. All in all, an unpredictable president, poorly versed in the political ways of Washington and seemingly unconstrained in his rhetoric and attitude to power, has in fact not been able to run roughshod over the US constitution.
Nor should it be assumed that the consequence of having a divided congress – with Democrat control of the House and Republican control of the Senate – will necessarily be gridlock. Trump, as he has frequently shown, especially in his approach to foreign policy, is a wheeler-dealer par excellence, who is prepared to make compromises for the sake of getting something done. There was criticism from Republicans during the present congress that some Democrats had been too amenable to doing deals with Trump, while some of the fiercest attacks on Trump came from his own side in the legislature, led by then veteran Senator John McCain.
Both Bill Clinton and George W Bush had to learn how to work effectively “across the aisle”, but to Trump it came naturally from his business experience. He may indeed come across as the most divisive of presidents, but his handling of congress has not always borne this out. Then again, even if the next two years generate only one legislative logjam after another, this may not necessarily redound to Trump’s disadvantage. He can simply turn around and blame the Democrats, in a way he could not when the Republicans controlled both chambers.
So the Democrats’ achievement in winning a majority in the House may not necessarily prove as beneficial to their cause as it might appear today. Nor might it – yet – be such a harbinger of better fortunes in the 2020 presidential race as they might hope.
As the midterm campaign reached its climax, it was striking that the Democrats were effectively leaderless, with Barack Obama returning to the trail as their standard-bearer. Nor has the “day after” provided the great prospect for 2020 – the equivalent of the 2002 Obama – that some had hoped for. Beto O’Rourke, seen as a candidate capable of challenging Trump at his own game and beating him, lost narrowly to the incumbent and former presidential candidate, Ted Cruz.
Now it may be that the subpoena power gained by the Democrats in the new House of Representatives or the conclusions of the Mueller inquiry, or indeed age, will blight Donald Trump’s prospects for a second term. What looks unlikely to blight them, however, if the midterm campaign is anything to judge by, is the sitting president’s shrill, inflammatory, at times unscrupulous, and profoundly divisive use – and defence – of his power.
And this is because the climate of campaigning is at least as much about the cultural climate of the United States in the early 21st century as it is about Trump. He may have said, on the eve of these elections, that he wished he had adopted a softer style over the past two years; well, we shall see what we shall see. But a kinder, gentler sort of campaign for the White House in 2020? Even the mild-mannered Obama sharpened his rhetoric several notches in opposing Trump; the next Democrat for president will have little choice but to do the same.
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